Everything changed in May of 2008. I got on a plane in Denver on the 1st, and started a journey I’ve yet to return from. Because of what has happened on that journey, my life has never been the same. I now describe myself as “a ruined man, who wouldn’t want it any other way.”
There’s something indescribable about walking on the sands of the land of the Bible. I think most Christians would understand this in principle. But there is so much more to it than just seeing things up close and personal. It’s truly a spiritual experience.
I didn’t really care if I went to Israel. In the Summer of 2007 I heard about a trip being planned by the church I was attending. I told my mom about it and she wanted to go. But she wouldn’t go by herself, so I made plans to go with her.
Have you ever been setup by God?
Let me be honest: for the first week of the two week pilgrimage, I was miserable. Something in me knew that there was a piece of the puzzle missing. Don’t get me wrong, much of the trip was exciting and I loved learning about different sites and the history behind them, but there was a disconnect between the religious experience I was used to in my Western Christian faith, and the life and people of the Land where these stories took place.
I wasn’t ready for Saturday morning.
I took a seat on a rock sitting among a grove of Olive Trees. It was in a location named, “The Olive Press.” In Hebrew, it’s pronounced, “Gat Shamanim.” It’s translated into our English Bibles as “Gethsemane.” I opened my Bible to Matthew 26 and began reading. Here’s how I described what happened in my book Midnight Approaches: Understanding the Times & Knowing What To Do About Them:
A crack opens up in the very center of my soul and seems to spread throughout my entire being. For a week I’ve been traveling throughout Israel. I’ve been to the Galilee. I’ve spent time in Ein Gedi, the Ellah Valley, and Masada. And the entire time I’ve been feeling that something just isn’t right. Now, in a garden famous not only for the prayer of my Savior, but for the silence of His Father, that feeling turns into anguish. I come to realize that we have been spending the past week talking almost entirely about what God could do for us, and very little about what we could do for Him. It is here, in the garden, that I see that modern Christianity has lost its focus, and that what Jesus intended for the Church is no longer even visible.
It’s hard to describe exactly what happened next. I’ve never heard the “audible voice of God.” But I know He spoke to me. In my spirit, I heard His voice say, “If you’re willing to erase 2,000 years of Church history and start over, I’ll show you things you never dreamed of.” He has.
I came back from Israel and became obsessed with looking at the Bible in its historical, geographical, religious, and cultural context. The Bible came alive for me. It’s like going from watching a 4-inch black & white TV to an 80-inch, 1080p HDTV. There’s no way to fully describe it. You have to see it for yourself to really “get it.” Here’s an example.
Throughout Jesus’ ministry, He was always being confronted by the religious leaders. One of the most common questions He was asked was, “Where did you get your ‘authority’?”
This was a common, religious question in the Judaism of the Second Temple Period. There were two kinds of rabbis in Jesus day. One, was called a “Torah Teacher.” That is translated in our Bibles today as “scribe.” These rabbis were unbelievably knowledgeable of the Hebrew Scriptures (we call those the Old Testament). These Torah Teachers had memorized every book of the Old Testament. They knew the traditional interpretation of every, single passage and could recite it at will. But these rabbis weren’t permitted to make new interpretation of the Scriptures.
However, there was a second type of rabbi. He was called a “smicah rabbi,” – or a rabbi with “authority.” These rabbis were extremely rare. They were recognized at being uniquely skilled at the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. And they were the only rabbis permitted to make new interpretation of Scripture.
How do we know that Jesus was considered a “smicah rabbi?” Two reasons.
First, Jesus gave new interpretation of Scripture in the specific way that a “smicah rabbi” would do so.
“You have heard that it was said…But I say to you…” (See Matthew 5:17-18; 21-22; 27-28; 31-32; 33-34; 38-39; 43-44).
This is how a “smicah rabbi” gave new interpretation.
The second reason is that people recognized this authority:
And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes. – Matthew 7:28-29 ESV
How did a rabbi, receive his “smicah?”
According to ancient Jewish sources, a rabbi received this special authority when two rabbis who already qualified as a smicah rabbis publicly laid hands on another rabbi and declared that they were qualified to give new interpretation of Scripture.
So, the religious leader’s question to Jesus is valid!
One day, as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes with the elders came up and said to him, “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority.” He answered them, “I also will ask you a question. Now tell me, was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ all the people will stone us to death, for they are convinced that John was a prophet.” So they answered that they did not know where it came from. And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” – Luke 20:1-8 ESV
This passage is loaded with CONTEXT! First, as we’ve seen, the leaders have a right to ask Jesus where He received His smicah – His authority. But Jesus answer is not being evasive! He’s playing their game. He’s using a traditional Jewish teaching technique called, “rabbinic dialogue.”
Essentially, this technique answers a question with another question. If the religious leaders effectively answer Jesus’ question, they will find the answer to their question! And the answer to Jesus question is that John the Baptist’s baptism was directly from God.
But it goes a step deeper. Jesus isn’t talking about John’s baptism in general. He’s talking about the specific moment when HE was baptized by John. Let’s look at this moment.
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” – Matthew 3:13-17 ESV
Now, we need to understand something very critical: at no time in Scripture do the religious leaders EVER question the authority of John the Baptist. They endorse him (See Luke 3).
Jesus gives a clear answer to where He received His smicah: at the Baptism of John. It is there that John – another rabbi with smicah – and God, HIMSELF, endorse Jesus publicly!
As one modern, Jewish rabbi put it: “Christians don’t get it! They have the only rabbi in history to receive his smicah directly from God!”
One simple word, understood in its historic, religious, and cultural context, takes the story of Jesus and brings it to life.